LAS VEGAS — If he hadn't become disenchanted with wrestling at a Pittsburgh-area high school, Armon Gilliam may never have stepped onto a basketball court. And top-ranked Nevada Las Vegas would be without its leading scorer and rebounder.
The 6-foot-9 Gilliam is the key to the Rebels' offense, which is No. 1 in the nation at 97 points per game, an All-America candidate, a World Games gold medal holder, and a top NBA prospect--despite the fact he's only played basketball for six years.
It was a frustrated, disappointed Gilliam who quit the wrestling team in his junior year at Bethel Park High School. Passing through the gym, he asked basketball Coach William (Red) Ryan if he could try out for the team, which was already into its 1980-81 season.
"I was terrible at the time," Gilliam laughed, recalling his first brush with a basketball. "I couldn't dribble; I'd never even played a playground pickup game. I was just awful. I was the seventh man on the reserves."
Times change and so did Gilliam.
Today the senior forward is one of the nation's leading scorers (23.8 points per game) and rebounders (9.4).
Football was Gilliam's forte in high school and he weighed offers from Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Clemson. Few thought he had a prayer at basketball.
"He was so green, it's hard to imagine him playing the way he's playing now," Ryan said recently.
Bob Kivisto, the basketball coach at Independence, Kan. Junior College, saw Gilliam play in a summer league and offered him a scholarship. Gilliam's grades were marginal for a four-year school and his basketball talent needed seasoning, so he headed for the two-year school in southeast Kansas.
"Going to Independence was a great opportunity," Gilliam said. "It was a nice, relaxed atmosphere. I could concentrate on school and basketball. I wasn't that good in basketball at the time and there were a lot of distractions in Pittsburgh."
At Independence, Gilliam averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds per game, leading his team to a 33-5 record and a berth in the National Junior College Tournament at Hutchinson, Kan., where he was named to the all-tournament team.
Ironically, UNLV recruiting coordinator Mark Warkentien was at the tournament in hopes of landing another player, Curtis Moore.
The Rebels opted for Gilliam, but then came the job of selling his parents on the idea of playing in the gambling capital of the world.
"My mother was not too excited about my coming to Las Vegas," Gilliam said, discussing his options of UNLV or Maryland.
Thus began a sales job by Gilliam on his mother, Alma, and his father, James, a retired postal worker who is a minister in the Shilo Baptist Church in Library, Pa.
"I told my mom I was going to concentrate on my priorities, I was not going to get caught up in anything," Gilliam said. "The same distractions could be found in any other city. It depends on the person and how strong they are."
Gilliam has kept his focus on those priorities. He currently carries a 3.0 grade average and will graduate this spring with a major in communications. He says the poor graduation rate of UNLV players in past years (all five seniors are scheduled to graduate this year) is the fault of the players, not the coaches.
"You have to want to get an education," he said. "You can't blame the coaches if you don't pass. They can't go to class with you."
Basketball athletes with grade averages below 2.5 are required to see their academic tutors three times a week. Miss a session and you run a mile, Gilliam said.
Many former UNLV players, including some now playing in the NBA, are returning to Las Vegas during the summer to work on their degrees under a program initiated by Runnin' Rebels Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Gilliam spent his summer playing in the World Games, matching up against such players as Navy's 7-1 David Robinson and the Soviet Union's 7-3 Arvidas Sabonis, who is considered by some to be the best amateur player in the world.
Gilliam, 22, who's switched from playing the organ at his father's church to the different beat of an electronic keyboard, says he would like a shot at an NBA career. But he says he hopes his college degree will open some doors for a more permanent career--possibly in television sportscasting.